Freshman lawmakers vow to make personal visits to Iraq
Capitol Hill freshmen considering changes to Iraq policy next year arescramblingtotaketripstotheregion in order to understand better the consequences of the promise of troop withdrawal, which many of them used to win their elections.
Most freshman Democrats, who appealed to voters frustrated with the war, said they are trying to get onto congressional delegations to Iraq, known as “codels.” All the freshman lawmakers interviewed by The Washington Times — seven personally and several more via spokesmen — said that the trips are a priority, though none have been scheduled in advance of the 110th Congress’ January swearing-in.
“Iamanxioustogetoverthereas soon as I can,” said Rep.-elect Jerry McNerney, California Democrat. “Iraq is a critical issue that really needs to be resolved, and the more I know about it the more I’ll be able to contribute to the solution.”
Rep.-elect Tim Walz, Minnesota Democrat, said he knows what it is like to leave a family and life behind when serving in the military.
“I would love to go tomorrow if they would send me,” he said. “I need to get there. For me it’s very, very personal.”
Mr.Walz,aNationalGuardsman, providedbasesecurityforthetroops during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
In addition to visiting Iraq, he promises to be a voice for troops, having worked for years to train Guard members and watch over their families. He will support legislation helping veterans and their families with health care and dealing with payday lenders.
Rep. Christopher Shays, who has been to Iraq 14 times, said a moreregular presence of U.S. politicians in the war zone would have prevented many of the worst blunders, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
“All members should go to Iraq, and they should go with an open mind,” the Connecticut Republican said. “They should be willing to reevaluate their basic conclusions.”
Mr.Shayswonre-electiondespite a tough political environment, in partbecausehereevaluatedhisown positions on the war. He said he “saw a lot of mistakes,” when visiting,includingtroopswithoutenough body armor and a lack of money in the field.
“Youshouldgo,andnotjustonce,” said Mr. Shays, who was about to makeanothertriptoIraq.“Whether you support it, oppose it or are ambivalent, you absolutely need to go.”
Rep.-elect Ed Perlmutter, ColoradoDemocrat,agreedthatafirsthandobservationwillhelpincoming freshmen. “Being there would give me a more complete picture,” he said.
“I’d like to go right away,” said Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who will become thefirstMuslimcongressmaninthe U.S. “It is up to politicians to make sure that soldiers are in the right place, and to withdraw soldiers whenit’sclearthereisamilitaryoperationthathasnotbeensuccessful.”
But freshmen must wait for their January swearings-in before congressional offices can arrange a codel.
“I’m not prepared to tell people what they ought to do,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, a Republicanwhosuggestedtheformationof the Iraq Study Group.
“It isn’t like going to see a field if you are surveying agriculture policy,” he said, while adding that “you learn a lot. There’s nothing like actually seeing, listening, hearing and experiencing.”
Mr. Wolf, who has been to Iraq three times, said he always worries about placing others in the delegation in danger. On his first trip, he traveledprivatelyoutsideofmilitary escort and remembers riding in a beat-up car with a broken windshield and “blood all over the place.”
DemocratRep.-electSteveCohen of Tennessee said of visiting Iraq: “I suspect it’s something that I should doaspartofmyduty.Idon’tlookfor- ward to it, but it’s a duty probably one should do.”
It’s unlikely all the freshmen will gettogotoIraq,especiallyiftheyare assigned to committees that do not handlewarpolicyordefenseissues. Still, even though the freshmen haven’t yet seen Iraq with their own eyes, they have strong opinions about what the U.S. should do with the troops.
“Our soldiers are sitting ducks,” Mr. Cohen said. “I cannot comprehendasuccessfulresolution,nomatterhowmuchmoney,nomatterhow many troops we amass. We have created a mess.”
“I’d like to see a complete redeployment,” Mr. McNerney said.
Thefreshmensaidtheyareeager to vote on such domestic matters as embryonic stem-cell research and the minimum wage, but said no issue is more pressing than the war.
“It’sthebigelephantintheroom,” saidRep.-electHankJohnson,Georgia Democrat. “People are ready for the war to come to an end as quickly as it is prudent.”